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Organic. Grass-Fed. Non-GMO. What Do Claims on Food Labels Really Tell You?

When you’re shopping for food, there’s a lot to consider. You may be looking for healthy options, not just for yourself and your family but for animals and the planet as well. Food manufacturers can put a lot of different claims on their labels, but it’s hard to know exactly what those claims mean.

We spoke with Tyler Florek, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix, to learn more about how we can use the information on food packaging to help guide our decisions. He told us that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulate some claims on food labels.

“Some of these labels have stringent criteria, and they give you information on the nutrients they contain. Others are nearly meaningless marketing terms meant to make you perceive certain products as ‘better’ or ‘healthier,’ to get you to purchase that item,” he said.

Here’s the truth behind 10 of these common claims.

The claim: No antibiotics/No hormones
What it means: The animal was never given any hormones or antibiotics during its lifespan.
What you should know: Overusing antibiotics in livestock can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can make it harder to treat bacterial infections in people. Hormones can make animals grow faster. Some people prefer to eat meat that hasn’t been treated with hormones or antibiotics. But Florek said these claims could often be misleading. For example, hormones in poultry have been banned since the 1950s, so all poultry is hormone-free whether it’s labeled that way or not.

The claim: Grass-fed
What it means: It’s used for beef, and it means the cattle ate grass rather than grain. Florek pointed out that nearly all cattle are grass-fed, but they may be grain-finished or fed grain at the end of their life.
What you should know: There’s often a difference in taste. Grass-fed beef is leaner with less fat, while grain-fed beef is more tender with more marbling. Grass-fed beef also has higher levels of healthy omega-3 fats, but Florek said the difference isn’t significant.

The claim: Organic
What it means: Foods with “organic” labels need to meet USDA criteria for practices that “foster the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity.” These foods can’t be grown with synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation (exposure to ionizing radiation)  or genetic engineering.
What you should know: It may sound good on the surface, but Florek said, “‘Organic’ is mostly a nebulous marketing term that is meant to elicit the idea of being ‘healthier.’” So far, there’s no solid research to show organic foods are healthier or contain more nutrients. And organic farming practices can still use pesticides and may not be more sustainable than conventional farming practices.

The claim: Natural/All-natural
What it means: The product doesn’t contain any artificial ingredients, colors or flavors.
What you should know: This claim isn’t directly regulated, and it’s often used solely as a marketing term.

The claim: Non-GMO/GMO-free
What it means: The product does not contain foods grown with genetically modified organisms. According to the FDA, GMO foods are engineered to resist insects or tolerate herbicides. Potatoes, soy, corn, wheat, cotton, summer squash, canola, alfalfa, apples, and sugar beets are often genetically modified. Some processed foods contain GMO foods, but most GMO foods are used as animal feed.
What you should know: Food producers sometimes use this labeling for foods that wouldn’t typically contain GMOs. For example, Florek has seen claims for GMO-free water. He also pointed out that GMO foods aren’t necessarily bad for your health. In fact, golden rice, a genetically engineered grain that contains vitamin A, has helped people who live in places where vitamin A deficiency is common.

The claim: Excellent source/Good source
What it means: To be considered an excellent source of a nutrient, a food item must contain 20% or more of the nutrient’s daily value per serving. A good source needs to have 10 to 19% of  the daily value.
What you should know: These claims are typically valid, and you can use them to guide your decisions if you are aiming for certain nutrient levels. You can also read the nutrition facts label for more details about specific nutrients.

The claim: Low-fat/Non-fat
What it means: Low-fat foods must contain less than 3 grams of fat per serving, while non-fat foods must contain less than 0.5 grams per serving.
What you should know: These claims are typically valid, and you can use them to guide your decisions if you are tracking your fat intake.

The claim: No added sugar
What it means: No sugar or sugar-containing substances were added during processing.
What you should know: Just because no sugar was added doesn’t mean the food is low in sugar. Fruit juice, for example, can contain a lot of naturally occurring sugar.

The claim: Whole grain/Multigrain
What it means: The food must contain 51% or more whole-grain ingredients.   Multigrain foods contain different grains, but those grains don't have to be whole grains.
What you should know: Whole grains include the grain's bran, germ and endosperm. Refined grains strip away some of the bran and germ, along with the nutrients they contain. If you want to maximize your whole-grain intake, choose foods labeled 100% whole grain.

The claim: Fruit flavored
What it means: The food most likely contains artificial ingredients that imitate fruit flavor.
What you should know: These foods don’t necessarily contain actual fruit.

The bottom line

When you’re choosing foods, it’s essential to understand what claims on the labels are really telling you. Some are meaningful, while others are misleading. If you would like to connect with a health care provider who can help you find the best foods for you and your family, reach out to Banner Health.

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